Thursday, January 10, 2013

Chapter Two - The Secret of Loving

Ours is an unusual monastery, of course.  We have to learn how to shut ourselves in with God without shutting out those around us. 

After the first novel about the Benedictine Abbey, dozens of “nun books” came into my hands.  Everyone ought to have a friend whose mother works for a library system!  Virginia fed her daughter’s interest in things monastic, and Diana fed mine.  We read biographies and exposés written by monks and nuns, as well as scores of secular men and women who had chosen to curtail some of their personal liberties for the sake of more freedom of soul.  Often fun-loving and enthusiastic, these stories were always deeply reverent and appreciative toward this privileged lifestyle.  That’s what the monastery was to them, a privilege. 

We talked and compared notes for years, Diana and I.  She would find an obscure volume, read it and pass it on, and I did the same.  We found that there was a common theme among them, that those who persevered in cloistered life were not those trying to hide themselves away from the world.  Those postulants didn’t last, but the ones who wanted to develop lives of intense, unfailing prayer and worship were willing to sacrifice much to have it. 

Fellowship, they found, was not lost.  Although in traditional houses of worship, the Sisters might have only one or two hours of conversation permitted in the course of the day, their communion was very sweet and their mutual love and respect grew strong.  A very few monastic orders incorporate only an hour or two of conversing fellowship during an entire week, and still they come to know one another deeply and love one another truly.  Tempers and frictions and rifts do occur, of course, but having to eat and worship and work and pray together every day, offenses must come to resolution.  The doors are locked and only the Abbess and the Portress have the keys!  Necessity mothers forgiveness and forbearance and, eventually, mutual love and respect.

Here is a terrific example of a monastic practice that translates beautifully in our lives.  We may choose to live inside the locked doors of marriage, widowhood, or solitude, and call it a privilege.  We may be devoted to our families or our situational solitude, as long as it lasts, in a healthy way, a prosperous way, even in trial and difficulty.  There are circumstances beyond our control, but we must be ready to forgive, and more zealous to love than to be loved.  Living alone, we must be willing to be comforted in our hearts and in our spirits, where arms and lips and words are not with us to sustain us.  The Lord Jesus Christ, when we do not refuse His love, inwardly demanding a husband or a boyfriend who hasn’t materialized, is the very best of companions.

Relationships can last if God holds them together, and whether we speak of husbands or children, of friendships or of God Himself, we are allowed to love
. . .  all we want.  No one can take that away from us.  Of course we cannot make others love us in return (we say of course, but oh!, how we do try if we aren’t careful!), but there is a place in Jesus Christ where love is true and the pain of love lost is nowhere near as great as the pain of love withheld.  When we guard our hearts against fear of loss, when we hold back love selfishly and manipulatively, we endanger our lives. In the Lord (and in Him is the eternal house of worship,) we learn to love as He did, vulnerably.  Hardened hearts hurt us more and longer than ever they can wound others, except perhaps our children.   Vulnerability isn’t a popular idea; it never was.  It works better than any other purpose, however, and if it seems to fail, we find it worked absolutely, because we haven’t lost the ability to love or to be loved.  Besides, we are only as "vulnerable" as the Lord is precise in what He allows for the sake of our redemption.

This is monastic thought.  Seldom does an Abbess want to see even a difficult postulant pack up and leave, and those superiors who have led others for many years can see ways to make things work, but there must be a willingness to stay.  How much more will God cause all things to work together for our good when we are called according to His purpose! (Romans 8:28)  If we don’t think we fully understand His purpose, we can know this: we are to remain in Christ as He remains in us (John 15:4.)  Incredibly, we see we do know His purpose, after all.  To remain in Him, we will have to forsake ourselves.  When we remain in Him, He becomes our life, and our joy overflows (John 15:11.)  It makes sense. 

"For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it."  (Mark 8:35)

Before monks and nuns and even the Catholic Church, this was the spiritual monasticism that belonged to every soul.  No one and nothing can keep us from sharing His life and love.  We must enter, and we must stay, and in Him we must learn to love.

For now, for today, let us make this determination within these walls: we choose to love.  We might all very well make another, corresponding commitment: we won’t imagine that we are really good at it!  Some of us, precisely because we have stayed and have been choosing love for a long time, have gained a little skill, but who among us would come up to the podium on Oscar night to receive the “Best Portrayal of Real Love in the Light of the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ” award?  We are understudies.

Just like an understudy – or a nun – we won’t get far if we get bored, fed-up, tired of waiting, jealous or fretful, and decide to leave.  That, my beloved friend, is the cloister of it all!  We stay. We lock ourselves in.  We know that we cannot and must not evade others, but we will learn how to go out and about, how to live at home and function at work, with cloistered hearts, able to hear the smallest whisper from the mouth of God, and, what’s more, able to stop what we’re doing and obey it.

That’s why we have come to this monastery . . . an online monastery!  What an odd concept, but any concept will work as long as it closes us in with Jesus Christ forever, and teaches us to love Him and others right where we find ourselves.  Real and relevant – that is the cloistered life that we seek.   Again today, welcome!  Welcome to love that does not fail.  Welcome to the promises of God. Welcome to Cor Unum, the monastery of the heart.

Semanque Cloister
Ioan Sameli, by permission

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